Metro Bank has been accused of potentially putting peoples health at risk during the coronavirus crisis by freezing an NHS pharmacys business account with no explanation, leaving it unable to pay suppliers.
The co-owner of NDY Peters Pharmacy in Marylebone, central London, said the firms staff were working on the NHS frontline, helping patients and the community, but added: “At this moment we are struggling … we are very worried about the shop.”
Neda, who did not wish to disclose her surname, said she and her husband discovered on 2 March that Metro Bank had frozen the shops business account, which they use to pay their pharmaceutical suppliers, staff wages, utility bills, rent and other costs. It has more than £10,000 in it, which they now cannot access.
She said she believed the bank had suspended the account “because of our ethnicity and where we come from”. Her parents are Iranian, though they moved to Europe about 40 years ago and have lived in the UK for 20 years. Neda was born in Italy and has visited Iran several times.
In recent years, several UK banks have been accused of conducting purges of customers who have links to certain countries, and last month Metro Bank was hit with a lawsuit by a group of Iranian customers who said their accounts were unfairly suspended without notice or explanation.
The personal Metro Bank accounts of Neda and her mother, who is a director of the pharmacy, were frozen on the same day as the business account, and it had already suspended Nedas husbands personal account.
Neda said: “As a pharmacy we have responsibility towards our patients for their medications. We are working every day as NHS frontline … but we need our banking facility to be in good order to continue to do so.
“We could not pay our staff until now, and they are kind enough to work during this situation. However, we have managed to borrow money at least to pay our suppliers so we can order medications and carry on opening our pharmacy on a daily basis.”
Neda said a pharmacy was clearly a vital business during the pandemic, and added: “This could put peoples lives at risk … We are struggling as a business already. We have to keep it open … we work for the NHS.”
The affected accounts were opened in late 2018, and Neda said there was no apparent reason why the bank would take such tough action: “This is a pharmacy – there havent been any weird transactions coming in from the Middle East.”
Neda said because of its location in the capital, the pharmacy had been heavily affected by the lockdown – many of its customers are passing tourists and others from overseas, including embassy staff.
The Guardian reported last month that the Metro Bank lawsuit involved a group of 17 claimants who were expected to seek at least £1.5m in damages, with any potential trial expected to take place in 2021.
In recent years, the Guardian has featured a number of cases of banks allegedly dumping customers they view as having links to countries about which they have concerns. This controversial practice is known in the industry as “de-risking”.
In 2016, the Financial Conduct Authority said it had become aware that banks were withdrawing banking facilities from customers – or failing to offer them in the first place – in greater numbers than before.
It said there was a perception that this was driven by lenders concerns about the money laundering and terrorist financing risks posed by certain types of customer. Iran may be viewed as problematic because of the sanctions imposed on it by the US.
Commenting on the case, a Metro Bank spokesperson said: “Were really sorry to hear about this situation and apologise for the inconvenience this is causing. We never take a decision to suspend a customers account lightly, however the steps we have taken are required in line with our terms and conditions, and we are undertaking our review as quickly as we are able to do so.”